SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- When Von Miller steps onto the field for Super Bowl 50 on Sunday, his road less traveled won’t be the one talked about the most. That slot is reserved for what could be Peyton Manning's final NFL game.
But Miller’s journey reset his future. And in the time it took the Denver Broncos to get back to the Super Bowl -- two seasons -- Miller has pulled himself from the edge of a football abyss of wasted talent and lost opportunity. He has become an impact player, perhaps the impact player, on the league’s No. 1 defense and is on the doorstep of a record free-agency windfall.
Ask Miller about life, liberty and the pursuit of football happiness and he’ll be a bottomless source of wit, offbeat and stream of consciousness. Ask Miller whether maybe, just maybe, the reason he is still playing football is DeMarcus Ware, and it’s a whole other matter entirely.
“DeMarcus ... he just ... DeMarcus was my idol. ... DeMarcus just ... I don’t know. DeMarcus ... he’s just the kind of player, the kind of person ... I don’t know, I have so many thoughts in my head. ... DeMarcus, he just came here at exactly the right time," Miller said. “I’m a totally different guy than I was a couple years ago. DeMarcus got here a couple years ago. The people around me, my family, my closest friends helped me do it. But so did DeMarcus. DeMarcus was big. Very big. Huge, really."
Said cornerback Chris Harris Jr.: “I’ve said, before Von didn’t really have that discipline, that drive. Before he was talented; now he’s talented with hard work. He wants to be great. I don’t know if he did before."
"Before" was summer 2013, when Miller was suspended for six games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. He also missed a court date for traffic citations and looked like another player with vast, unmet potential. He came back from his suspension bulked up in an attempt to play with more power, topping 270 pounds. His play suffered, and in Week 16, he tore the ACL in his right knee in Houston.
Harris, for one, says that moment of pain, shock and uncertainty was the start.
“Because he learned right then, it can just end," he said. “I’ve said it’s crazy to think about, but tearing his ACL might be the best thing that happened to him. That, and DeMarcus."
Miller was deep into his injury rehab in March 2014 when the Broncos, in the wake of a 35-point loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, a game in which Miller didn’t play because of his injury, opened the team’s checkbook to give the defense a makeover. One of the players they signed was Ware.
And in Ware, Miller saw his idol, an example, a mentor and someone who had the professional chops to push when a push was needed. Veterans like Elvis Dumervil and, for a short time, Shaun Phillips helped. But Ware is pass-rush royalty, a member of the 100-sack club, consistently praised for his professionalism.
“You get to see greatness up close and personal. The coaches always tell you this is what leadership looks like," Miller said. “You’ve got all these greats that come through here, and they tell you this and they tell you that, but having a real-life example right across just a couple feet from me and him being my idol, it was just great. I get to come in and see what type of shoes he wore every day, how he laces up his shoes, how he comes to work, how does he handle adversity from the injuries and all that stuff. I got to see it up close and personal. ... It was great timing.
"It’s just DeMarcus, being a guy that I grew up trying to be like from my tape and the way I played the game. Even the way he walked off the field, ran on the field, the way he’s got his hands and stuff, the little stuff."
Broncos coach Gary Kubiak has been happy with Miller’s growth this season. Kubiak even had Miller speak to the team’s rookies about his journey, the mistakes made. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has called it “a great season, that people maybe don’t realize how good he’s been, how much impact he’s had for us."
Miller, who led the Broncos with 11 sacks this season, is set to be an unrestricted free agent. The Broncos, with a franchise player tag and business decisions to make all over the roster, face what could be the largest contract in franchise history. Miller's deal could approach the nine-digit range.
“You’ve got to have somebody always out there pushing you or if you’re tired, ‘Hey, let’s go one more play,' " Ware said. “Von’s done the work, and he’ll need to do more. You always have to have that mindset to get better, reach farther, do a little more. There’s no limit to what he can do."
“DeMarcus, he came when I was in a rough place," Miller said. “Now, I just feel like I can be the best me. That’s what Coach Kubiak says all the time, be the best you. I just want to be the best me and like me while I’m doing it."